MGWCC #715

crossword 3:02 
meta 1:00 with hint 


hello and welcome to episode #715 of matt gaffney’s weekly crossword contest, “A City of Puzzles”. i attempted this week 2 puzzle with the instructions but without the hint, and i got nowhere. the instructions were: This week’s contest answer, which is located in one of the eight U.S. states that begins with the letter N, is a city that often appears in crosswords. what are the theme answers? five “cities” (technically three cities and two towns, all quite small, of which i had only ever heard of one) in the u.s.:

  • {City near Devil’s Tower National Monument} SUNDANCE, wyoming. population 1,032.
  • {City at the foot of Mount Rainier} BUCKLEY, washington. population 5,114.
  • {City east of Tampa that’s named for a tree} MULBERRY, florida. population 3,952.
  • {City just north of Hartford} GRANBY, connecticut. population 10,903. not only is it the largest town of the theme answers, it’s the only one i’d heard of, because of the granby notch, an irregularity in the otherwise straight-line border between connecticut and massachusetts also called the southwick jog (after the massachusetts town across the border from granby). i don’t expect that this is especially famous either to anybody who doesn’t live in new england.
  • {City just northeast of Paducah} MARION, kentucky. population 3,039.

first observation: even though these cities are all quite small and none of them are famous, the clues do not mention their states, so probably the states are important. but i don’t know how. i had the thought that perhaps the town name and state name might have a letter in the same place, but that isn’t true (and the lengths don’t match up anyway).

i then thought about counties, and got a little excited when i saw that BUCKLEY is in pierce county and MULBERRY is in polk county. could these all be named for presidents? no, none of the rest of them are.

my next thought was zip codes, perhaps used as indices into the town name. that seems pretty constrained, but given all of the towns in the country to choose from, you could probably find some that work, right? well, this idea died when it turned out GRANBY is big enough for three zip codes—all of which contain zeroes anyway, and zero isn’t great for indexing.

with so little to go on, i eventually threw in the towel and decided to look at the hint, which is an alternate title for the puzzle: “I Suspect Vowel Play”. with the hint in mind, i noticed immediately that the city + state names were all supervocalic (containing each vowel exactly once), and a short time later that they were all in fact euryvocalic (containing Y exactly once, too). in hindsight, perhaps i should have noticed that the original puzzle title was also a euryvocalic, but, well, that’s hindsight for you. maybe three or four years ago i would have been more primed to notice it back when noticing supervocalics was all the rage.

so what’s the meta answer? it’s UTICA, NEW YORK, much more famous than the five theme answers and surely the best-known euryvocalic city in the u.s. that said, it’s certainly not straightforward to just think of euryvocalics, so i can understand the specificity of the instructions. but once you know you’re looking for a euryvocalic, you can rule out north carolina, north dakota, new jersey, new mexico, new hampshire, nebraska, and nevada, all of which contain two or more of the same vowel, so new york is the only state left, and then you’re just looking for a city with A, I, and U. i actually didn’t bother to eliminate those states, though; i just thought of the answer pretty quickly, but only because i was laboring under the (incorrect) impression that the instructions had specified five letters, perhaps because there were five theme answers. (then again, most crosswordese cities are five letters anyway.)

i can’t say this was an especially fun solving experience. i’d probably feel better about it (and about myself) if i’d managed to notice the euryvocalics without the hint, but then again, i’m not sure why this would be something to notice in a week 2 puzzle without the hint. it’s definitely underwhelming that these are all decidedly unfamous cities, though. i guess i was hoping there would be more of a payoff for resorting to such obscure towns.

that’s all i’ve got this week. how’d you all like this one?

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42 Responses to MGWCC #715

  1. C. Y. Hollander says:

    This puzzle was pretty nice, but I had a couple of minor issues with it.

    1) The concept seems to be that these city names together with their state names contain every vowel, including Y (though not W) exactly once, so it’s a tad unfortunate that the Y in New York is a consonant.

    2) I understand that some, if they can’t solve a puzzle, like to submit wild guesses (“Hail Mary’s”) in the hopes of getting lucky and… getting their name listed along with those who actually solved the puzzle, I suppose (I can’t say I fully understand their motivation, so perhaps I’m missing something about it). Given the specificity of the prompt to this puzzle, I can imagine guesses like this landing on the right answer for entirely erroneous reasons, along the lines of, ‘It’s a common crossword city in an N-state; there are five theme answers, so it’s probably a five-letter city; I can’t see how to extract it, but in the absence of anything else, I’ll guess UTICA’. One might even further imagine that there existed some way to extract one letter of “Utica” from each state [U: CT/KY, T: WA, I: WY, C: KY/CT, A: FL].

    To avoid supporting that sort of wild guesswork, I would have a) given only four examples of such cities in the grid, rather than five and b) narrowed down the answer to the 12 states beginning with N, O, or P, rather than only the eight beginning with N, thus refraining from ruling out such crossword stalwarts as Enid, OK and Erie, PA off the bat, without making the solution any more difficult for those who uncovered the key mechanism of the metapuzzle.

  2. Jim Skinnell says:

    “I suspect fowl play” is also euryvocalic, but I think it’s typically “foul”. I had some help with this one, but would love to hear if there was something more than “hey, I only see 1 of each vowel+y” to point us in this direction. I didn’t see anything in the grid or clues, and in fact the mixed use of “near”, “foot”, and compass directions had me all over the US map for a very long time.

  3. Paul J Coulter says:

    Out of curiosity, I tried to find another example that might have been the answer (not confined to N states.) They turn out to be rare, so props to Matt for finding these. I came up with Salisbury, Vermont. I’ve actually been there during my New England days, but it’s a tiny place that few will have heard of previously. Full disclosure: I needed the hint.

    • Barry says:

      In Idaho, just east of Twin Falls, there are TWO “cities” either side of the Snake River :- Burley, Idaho (pop. 10000 ) and Heyburn, Idaho (pop. 3000 ) which fit the brief also, apart from the N-state. Stranger than fiction!
      Also, Utica is renowned for its jigsaw puzzles!

  4. Alex Bourzutschky says:

    That was painful. Supervocality is something I tend to notice but did not do so here. And Utica was my go-to guess until I changed it in the last hour to Taos. Maybe next year!

  5. John says:

    Long bombs are a cherished and valid method of correctly answering the meta. Some top solvers (cough-Tyler-cough) have even done it with some frequency. Matt has said, you can’t get the meta if you don’t answer, thus encouraging the practice. I didn’t get the mechanism, guessed there were 5 letters, knew a little crosswordese, and sent in UTICA. I feel GREAT!

    • C. Y. Hollander says:

      Valid in what way? To me, they’re nothing more than a cover for failure.

      Here’s one way to think about it: suppose the puzzle consisted of nothing more than the prompt, and the way to “solve” it were to correctly guess what Matt had in mind. Would a “puzzle” like that hold any interest for you at all?

      • John says:

        Valid in that answering correctly, by guessing, is winning. Like the term it comes from, if a quarterback whose team has been outplayed all game heaves a 60-yard bomb that is accidentally tipped by the defense into his receivers hands in the end zone – he wins. No one will call the game a cover for failure. A win is a win.

        • C. Y. Hollander says:

          In the scenario you describe, at least arm strength and a degree of accuracy is required to get the ball close to the receiver, and the receiver has to make the catch after it’s tipped, so arguably there’s still some legitimate accomplishment there.

          Guessing the answer without solving the puzzle is more like how my cousin once ‘solved’ a Rubik’s cube by peeling off all the stickers and replacing them in neat order. I suppose it was a cute circumvention, at that, but she didn’t solve the puzzle.

          In my opinion, a well-designed puzzle should obviate this whole question by ensuring that it’s difficult or impossible to get the intended result without solving the intended puzzle. After all, the only purpose of setting that result as a goal, in the context of the puzzle, is to validate that the puzzle was solved. As with any other test, false positives may be inevitable, but this doesn’t make them desirable.

          • Flinty Steve says:

            Does anyone really submit a guess without having puzzled over the meta for a while? I’d like to think it’s not just a shot in the dark, but an honest attempt to see if a hunch and incomplete understanding of the mechanism might turn out to be right. Or then again, maybe just a way to create an excuse to stop thinking about the meta altogether. I’m surprised by the irritation on this, but maybe Matt can figure out how to apply a scarlet G on the leader board so guessers would receive their public due.

            • C. Y. Hollander says:

              I’m sorry for any irritation that came across in my tone. You make good points about why a guess may be worth submitting. I’m not advocating for a scarlet letter!

              I suppose if I’m advocating anything, it’s just that ideally, the answer to the prompt should not be easily guessable without deciphering the puzzle that is meant to lead to it.

              I think there could be an interesting discussion to be had here, but not if I make it personal. So to John, in particular, I’m sorry for putting down your solution. A win is a win!

          • There have been plenty of times I’ve filled in an answer or two in a crossword without understanding how the answer made sense but it was still right. No one would then say “well you didn’t solve the puzzle.” You could submit a hail-mary guess on Jeopardy or Who Wants to Be a Millionaire and still end up right; would you say that person didn’t deserve to win?

            I also prefer getting the full idea of a meta but let people celebrate getting the right answer even if it was a wild guess.

            • C. Y. Hollander says:

              I also prefer getting the full idea of a meta but let people celebrate getting the right answer even if it was a wild guess.

              You’re right, and I’m sorry for scorning that celebration.

            • Makfan says:

              I didn’t get this one, but I had it down to Reno and Utica. Reno just didn’t seem to fit anything except being in puzzles often. Utica at least fit in length. I didn’t notice the vowel situation, even with the hint. I don’t usually submit when I don’t feel sure, since I miss a lot of weeks as it is due to busy schedule or just flat out not getting it. I say let people celebrate when they get lucky once in a while. A hail mary approach is not going to win too often. I subscribe to this to get the occasional victory and send some support to someone who is a good constructor doing interesting things for our enjoyment.

      • PJ says:

        C’mon C.Y., relax. It’s a flipping puzzle. People solve for a variety of reasons. I expect many solve just for fun.

        When I first started solving metas I felt that using anything other than my brain was cheating. This site got me past that.

    • jimaquaman says:


  6. Mutman says:

    For old-time MGWCC solvers, there was a similar meta years ago when the answer was (Department of) Education. Anyone remember??

    Similar, but not exactly, the same mechanism.

    Maybe that helped me this time! (With hint)

  7. Matt Gaffney says:

    Thanks, Joon — 293 right answers, about 30 of which didn’t use the hint. For the second month in a row a Week 2 became a Week 5 (if unhinted) because I drastically underestimated how difficult one particular step would be.

    I thought solvers would notice the five cities, write them down, then write their states down, and notice pretty quickly that they all contained AEIOU and Y exactly once each (as does the title). But that turned out to be a much harder a step than I’d anticipated. It seemed like it would jump right off the page but obviously that’s not the case.

    • Maggie W. says:

      I pretty much got it this way, although it took a while. I thought that the state limitation in the instructions suggested that the states were somehow important, but I started by writing down their postal abbreviations, not their full names. At some point I decided to look for letters common to the cities and their states, hoping those would spell something, but they didn’t…because there were no common vowels.

      • C. Y. Hollander says:

        I thought that the state limitation in the instructions suggested that the states were somehow important, but I started by writing down their postal abbreviations, not their full names.

        Same here.

    • Flinty Steve says:

      The Difficulty-o-Meter is due for its 715-puzzle tune-up.

    • Adam Rosenfield says:

      I wrote them all down (using both abbreviations and full state names), but noticing that they were euryvocalic was NOT at all obvious for me. Some folks, particularly NPLers I believe, are very accustomed to looking for supervocalic/euryvocalics words, but that’s not something I normally do.

      This is totally fair game for a week 3-5 puzzle, but it’s definitely not week 2 material without the hint (and even with the hint I struggled).

    • Makfan says:

      My fatal mistake was I wrote the cities down and the state postal abbreviations only.

  8. Mikie says:

    I got it with a guess, and I’m not ashamed, could even call it a backsolve. Common xword cities in states starting with N is a pretty short list…Taos came to mind immediately (I’m a native New Mexican), as did Reno, and Omaha, and Utica. Oh, and Fargo. Nothing popped to mind for a commonly used city in New Hampshire or North Carolina. Of these, Omaha, Utica, and Fargo are 5 letters, as seemingly implied by there being 5 themers. Take the hint about vowel play, well, Omaha repeats the A, Fargo only has 2 and is much less common as an entry than the others, so, obviously, it has to be voweliest one, Utica. QED. :-)

  9. LuckyGuest says:

    Matt, I forgot to include in the comments that I used the hint. And even though it’s my hometown, I only got on the board at #247 (I had been trying to force “Utica” since 12:01 on Friday), and even then only because of some convolutions that would never stand up in a court of “show your work” (also known, in my little world, as “y’know, if you cross your eyes just so…”).

  10. Seth says:

    I decided pretty quickly that the mechanism couldn’t possibly be “Randomly search all the cities in all the N-states until you find a supervocalic combination,” because that seems waaaaay too imprecise for a meta. I actually googled “city state combos with all 5 vowels” and nothing obvious popped up. I suppose New York is the only possible state, but still — if you don’t happen to know UTICA, this is incredibly incredibly hard. There’s nothing in the meta that actually points to UTICA — you just have to fish it out of the blue.

    • hail mary says:

      If you reverse the first five letters of the original title (A CITY…), you get YTICA. Not sure if it was intended, but after scouring the puzzle endlessly, I took it as a nudge.

    • joon says:

      if you don’t *know* utica, then yes, it’s hard. but i think the point was that utica does indeed show up in crosswords very commonly due to its very crossword-friendly letter pattern, so it should a) be broadly familiar to mgwcc solvers; and b) readily come to mind when prompted for a city often in crosswords, especially once you’ve narrowed it down to cities in new york.

      the meta would have been much more difficult and also less satisfying if the answer had been something like marion, kentucky or granby, connecticut.

      • Katie M. says:

        To add to Joon’s “b)”, if you can’t remember Utica on your own, just google “crossword city in new york” and Utica will be one of the answers.

    • Wayne says:

      You can eliminate the other seven “N” states up front, because they each have a repeat vowel all by themselves. So once you had the mechanism, the next “aha” is to realize that the city has to be in New York.

      Then it’s just a quick scan of a New York city list for names that do have a “u” and don’t have an “e” or “o”.

    • Dave says:

      New York is the only state that could work, and the list of cities in New York is surprisingly short:
      Apparently most of the municipalities in New York are villages rather than cities. Learn something new every day.

  11. AmyL says:

    I once totally guessed an answer (I think it was “Upper Volta”) without getting any of the meta mechanism. It was such an unsatisfying win that I decided not to try it again.

    • C. Y. Hollander says:

      I had a similar experience. For me it was “Perot” (meta #586); the prompt had narrowed the field to eight possibilities (all grid entries) and, without finding a clear solution, I had conceived some hazy idea of the lines along which the mechanism might work. My hazy idea turned out to be utterly wrong and my guess correct by pure coincidence. After that, I decided not to submit unless I believed I’d actually solved the puzzle.

  12. Magoo says:

    Never saw the hint because I was travelling and not looking at my email (the account I use for the puzzle is not one I check regularly). That’s clearly my own fault, but as a puzzle without a hint, I’m just putting this down as totally impossible. I identified the states involved and that they would matter, but WHY would I think to look for so-called ‘supervocalic’ combinations? I have no idea. [I’m also now wondering if “I Suspect Vowel Play” was a failed attempt at another euryvocalic phrase?]

    • Jim S says:

      I think the entry point to the mechanism via the hint may have been “I suspect fowl play”, which is euryvocalic, and the twist of adding “vowel” in there might have been the opener for some. But “I suspect foul play” may be more familiar and isn’t euryvocalic so your mileage may vary.

      • C. Y. Hollander says:

        Is “foul play” not simply the correct spelling of the idiom? I don’t see how to make sense of “fowl play” if not as a misspelling of “foul play”, at any rate.

        • Jim S says:

          Not sure… the “fowl” version of the phrase googles pretty well as a chicken joke (about 4.5 million results vs 12.5 million for “foul”) and it happens to be euryvocalic, so I made the assumption that Matt may have been leaning on that version as part of his hint (in hindsight, of course). Could be a coincidence, though.

    • C. Y. Hollander says:

      I didn’t look at the hint until after submitting either. It felt hard, but not impossible (and, after all, about 30 people did solve it sans hint, per Matt). There were couple of subtle clues that I think helped nudge me in the direction of the solution.

      1) There seemed more Y’s than usual in the grid, and, more particularly, the theme entries (3 out of 5). That’s a very slender reed to lean on, and I don’t say it amounts to very much on its own, but it did strike me.

      2) The title “A City of Puzzles” features the same property of featuring every vowel once. Unless and until one notices that property, the word “A”, in particular, stands out as extraneous: if there were no particular reason to include it. “City of Puzzles” would effectively be a cleaner, conciser way of saying essentially the same thing. This clue feels more substantial than the first and I believe was indeed what finally got me thinking along the right track.

  13. jefe says:

    I got it with the hint. Once I realized that New York was the only possible state, Utica popped out immediately. I wondered how often it actually appears as I hadn’t personally seen it in a while, but then I saw it was actually in yesterday’s NYT!

  14. Richard K says:

    If you draw a straight line connecting Sundance, WY, to Marion, KY, it just about passes through Omaha, NE, right at the midpoint. Also, NE is the only N-state abbreviation containing a true vowel. Just sayin’ . . .

    (Can you tell what my Hail Mary guess was?)

  15. I blew my probably one and only chance to be first on the board because my immediate guess was Utica as we live not far from there. I always chuckle at how frequently we see it in crosswords. But, alas, just too chicken to guess unless it’s the eleventh hour. Thanks for the hint, Matt! That was really appreciated.

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